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The East Baton Rouge School Board is set to approve a long-awaited name change to majority-Black Lee High School, which bears the name of former Confederate General Robert E. Lee, in a virtual meeting Thursday night, July 16, 2020. Recommendations board members will consider are Louisiana Magnet High School, Liberty Magnet High School, and P.B.S. Pinchback Magnet High School.

Barely two years after taking over a prominent Baton Rouge public high school, Liberty High Principal Rob Howle is being replaced and a search will begin soon for his successor.

Howle was placed on leave on Oct. 15 after a text message was made public in which he suggested football players who don't stand for the national anthem shouldn't be on the team. The national anthem has been a flashpoint nationwide since football player Colin Kaepernick kneeled during a 2016 playing of the anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

Since then, the school system has been investigating the incident but also other issues connected with Howle's tenure, according to a Liberty High parent who answered questions for school officials last week.

Students found out about the change in principal in a message Tuesday afternoon from Adam Smith. Smith, who took over earlier this month as interim superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, did not explain in his message why he made the leadership change.

He said Assistant Principal Shawonna Ross will serve as the acting principal until a new principal is selected.

“The district will continue to support students, families and faculty at Liberty to ensure the school continues to thrive,” Smith wrote.

Taylor Gast, a spokeswoman for the school system, said the school system was in the process of communicating this information with students, parents and faculty. Gast also would not say why Howle is being replaced, but she said he remains an employee of the school system.

Howle did not return a message on Tuesday from The Advocate seeking comment.

The Liberty High leadership change comes just as the high school moves past another racial controversy this summer around changing the school's name to end its association with a Confederate general. Liberty High was renamed from Lee High, named after Robert E. Lee, in July following protests across the country that targeted symbols of the Confederacy. 

Howle is leaving Liberty just after starting his third year as principal. Soon after taking over in 2018, Howle relaunched football, which the school had last played a decade earlier.

Corey Delahoussaye, a parent of a Liberty High student, said he had a long phone conversation last week with Smith about the football incident as well as other concerns he's had with Howle.

"This isn’t the first time we’ve seen or heard Howle say, 'It’s this way or the highway,'" Delahoussaye said.

He said he maintains a list of the teachers who have left Liberty since Howle took over a principal, and there are more than 50 names on it. He also said no one volunteers at the school anymore.

Delahoussaye said Smith, who he's known for years, was professional in his conversation with him.

"Adam was vey open, very concerned. He wasn’t dismissive," Delahoussaye said. "He asked questions that I would have expected him to ask, but he didn’t say one way or another what his decision would be."

The latest controversy arose after an image of Howle’s text message, dated Oct. 1, was posted on social media later in the month. The text, which includes no names, is a short rant from Howle about football players who didn't stand during a recent playing of the national anthem.

“That was embarrassing,” he wrote. “Playing football is a privilege not a right.”

The text goes on to suggest that the recipient, an unnamed employee of the school, might want to make it mandatory to stand during the anthem “or this team will never get any more support from the administration.”

“If they don’t want to stand they can turn in their equipment and we will refund their money,” the text says.

When it placed Howle on leave, the school system said it respects students' rights to freedom of speech and expression and promotes responsible citizenship. The district pointed to a policy in its student handbook that allows for silent meditation during the Pledge of Allegiance, but it also touches on the national anthem and says students "shall be encouraged to exhibit respectful behavior.”

Delahoussaye said Howle missed an opportunity with the football incident to start a wider conversation about the real concerns of the athletes who protested.

"This is a time for us to have a dialogue both as parents and as athletes," he said.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.